IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 151 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera
It’s 1984, and Diana Prince is still fighting crime as Wonder Woman while also working as a senior anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. While foiling a robbery, she comes into possession of the Dreamstone, an ancient artifact which is supposed to fulfill the wishes of people who hold it. Her old love Steve Trevor returns in the form of another man after she involuntarily wishes it. And Barbara Ann Minerva, a dowdy and insecure woman who idolises Diana, becomes more confident and strong when she involuntarily expresses her wish to be her. However, aspiring politician and television celebrity Max Lord is facing financial ruin and wants the Dreamstone for himself….
I’ve never really understood this DC/Marvel war among superhero fans; surely if you like this stuff then you support both and take each film on its own merits? Nonetheless, DC’s movie output has considerably improved of late, with 2017’s Wonder Woman setting a fairly high standard for female-led superhero epics which Marvel’s 2019’s Captain Marvel fell seriously short of with its messy storytelling, weak main character arc, and prevalence of that irritating Marvel glibness which diminishes much of their product. Saying that though, both films had lead actresses who visibly struggled with playing their roles on screen, with the usually excellent Brie Larson visibly unsure of how to act her part and Gal Gadot just being unable to act. Wonder Woman 1984 is Warner’s second attempt at a major theatrical release this year following Tenet a few months earlier which disappointingly but understandably failed to bring in the punters in anywhere near the numbers wanted, though with the difference that it will also stream on HBO Max for a month from Christmas Day, something that may help it to make a profit for the studio if not our poor cinema chains. This is something of a shame, because the good but certainly not flawless Tenet is a total masterpiece compared with this flabby and often tedious exercise, rife with poor plotting and even some stupidity which brought back reminders of Justice League and Batman V Superman to me a few times. I see that reviews are mainly positive elsewhere, but without reading any of them in detail until I’ve posted my own, I honestly fail to see why. Sure, it has its plusses, but these are plusses with a hell of a lot of dead space between them.
It certainly begins well and gives the impression that this is really going to turn out to be something, the big escapist action fantasy that we all need to get away from what’s currently happening in the world for two and a half hours, but this soon turns out not to be the case and those two and a half hours begin to feel like three. We open with a flashback, a swooping camera taking us to when Diana was a young girl, competing in an athletic competition on Themyscira against older Amazons. And boy is this some athletic competition, with lots of amazing feats being accomplished. This is one of two scenes which were partly released online some ago amid complaints of poor CGI; I’m the first one to whinge about dodgy digital effects because they’re so ugly to look at and are therefore often better off being done practically, but they looked fine to me so I guess that some more work has been done on them. Or maybe I was just happy to be in a cinema again and was too immersed in what was taking place onscreen to notice flaws [though that soon changed]. After getting distracted and falling from her horse, Diana takes a shortcut and finished ahead of everyone else. However her aunt, the Amazon general Antiope, stops her from claiming victory because she’s cheated, and tells her that the true quality of a hero is to be true to herself, after which her mother, Queen Hoppolayta, agrees. Yawn. I would have personally preferred it if she was actually praised for using her brain, but that would be considered too subversive for one of these films wouldn’t it?
Anyway, we now switch to a very bright and colourful [talk about rose tinted glasses] 1984, cue for lots of the expected mixture of nostalgia porn and “oh, weren’t the ‘80s funny”? – there’s a whole montage later on dedicated to the latter which is especially cringeworthy. We soon get a really fun mixture of action and comedy set in a shopping mall when Wonder Woman stops a robbery; the laughs especially work well, this tending to be something that Marvel have gotten progressively wrong, relying largely on smarminess and creating the sense that little has much gravitas because a joke [albeit a usually unfunny one] is often thrown in even during a supposedly serious moment which undermines our ability to be emotionally involved. But here, there are gags galore and even a little girl watching our heroine do her thing, yet when one of the bad guys holds another child over some railings and almost drops her a considerable distance, we are worried and there’s just the right level of tension. The whole sequence feels like it belongs in a Christopher Reeve Superman film and yes – apart from Superman 4 that’s meant as a compliment. The heist was in a jewelry store which acts as a front for black market goods, including a stone with a Latin inscription saying that the deepest wish of the person holding the stone will be fulfilled. Diana befriends the insecure Barbara, who works in the same place as Diana, and even saves her from a mugger. Barbara’s wish that she could be Diana soon results in her changing for the better, as does Kristen Wiig’s performance, which begins like a variation on Michelle Pfeiffer’s incarnation of Selena Kyle [well, the character isn’t that different] but with added mugging, then gets stronger and more committed as the character herself changes. But Gadot – lord – she’s barely improved despite undeniably having a queenly look about her! I guess even today a lack of talent can be overlooked if you look good.
Of course once again Hollywood, which loves shoving the same issues down our throats over and over again, are once again showing their obsession with female empowerment, though at least this film just about stops short of that horrible misandry which is one of the most vile trends of modern cinema. Saying that though, surely it’s time that the tired old cliche of a woman becoming attractive simply by removing her glasses was put to bed. I mean, I’m the least PC person around and have had arguments with one of the other writers on HCF on the subject – but come on, what’s wrong with bespectacled ladies?! In any case, the biggest problem soon turns out to be how dull things get. For a start, that early sequence is all you get in terms of Wonder Woman action for well over an hour. Now I’m not some 10-year old boy who demands constant thrills in his superhero movies, but I was still wondering when things were finally going to pick up as scenes seemed to repeat each other much like the first half of Batman V Superman without much in the way of plotting being advanced. One wonders if director Patty Jenkins just couldn’t bare to cut anything out this time around, and also why a lot of today’s big movie screenwriters feel that they need three scenes to tell us what only one should be able to do. Economy seems to be a dying art in these things. Diana disappears for ages as we spend a lot of time with our main bad guy. I’m sure that some critics are likening the character to Donald Trump, though it seemed to me that Gordon Gecko was the chief inspiration for Maxwell Lord, a symbol of the ’80s culture of greed at its worst – and it soon becomes the Dreamstone which he desires most. We learn that it was originally created by a god of mischief and treachery. It certainly has the power to grant any wish, but it also extracts a price in the form of something its bearer holds most dear.
Lord takes it, and, while ignoring his young son, starts to appeal to people’s basest instincts in order to further his own personal gain. Pedro Pascal’s increasingly unhinged performance is definitely appropriate, but all this seems to take forever, giving the impression that we’re watching a plot of considerable complexity even though we’re not at all. At least we have Chris Pine returning as Steve; he’s not an actor I particularly like, but he and Gadot do have some chemistry despite the latter’s stiff performing, and the moment when he, in the form of another guy, returns to Diana at a party holding his old watch is a lovely one – were they riffing on Somewhere In Time here? The camera spins round and round the two as they hug and he becomes, with hardly any use of special effects, Steve – though only to Diana, everybody else seeing him as the other man. A lengthy bit where he takes her flying has a dreamy romanticism about it which we don’t see much in movies today, at least of this kind, though what should be the most powerful scene involving the two fails to have the emotional power that it should do. There’s little sense of a worldwide threat either despite anarchy supposedly taking place everywhere; in fact much of the film seems curiously cheap [even though it certainly wasn’t] and small despite its storyline. The visual effects are generally at the ‘okay’ level, even a section possibly inspired by the classic desert chase in Raiders Of The Lost Ark which was the other previously shown scene and which also apparently had poor visual effects. However, the big climactic fight, while being fast and energetic yet still allowing us to see what’s happening due to the cuts being slightly longer than is the unfortunate norm these days, is severely let down by the antagonist alternating between a reject from Cats and an indistinct blobby thing that jumps around which represents CGI at its worst, neither versions looking much like each other.
The writing is clearly the main problem, the low point out of several groaners probably being when the American President is holding a meeting and there’s a picture containing some drawings hanging on his wall in full view of anyone who comes in. “What’s that”? asks someone. “Oh, that’s blueprints for a top secret project”, is the reply. It’s not quite the notorious Batman V Superman ‘Martha’ scene, but surely one of three credited screenwriters – Jenkins, Geoff Jones, David Calaham – would have questioned this? It’s possible that some of the comic book experts will be able to answer things such as why Wonder Woman fails to use a certain power that she manages to unlock here in Justice League, but then continuity does seem to be something that Marvel, who I know I criticised earlier, are better at, though to the point of making some films feel like little more than bridges to the ones that follow. One has to admire a climax which largely features Wonder Woman just talking, but the far too neat conclusion [which seems to be yet another Superman riff in a film full of them yet seemingly unable to understand why the first two Reeve efforts were so good and the third one at least such fun] is too pat, and a mid-credits cameo that will undoubtedly get most people smiling fails to get rid of the feeling of crushing disappointment. Hans Zimmer does his best to ramp things up with his surprisingly melodic [for him these days] music score, which is far superior to most of his recent efforts. Maybe he felt that he needed to work overtime. The central theme of “be careful what you wish for, because it has a price to pay” is undoubtedly a compelling one, but to be honest you’re better off watching Wishmaster.